I like to describe the recording process as a little like cookery and the recording engineer as a chef, in that each develops unique recipes based around a distinctive choice of flavours. Just as a chef concocts his or her unique blend of herbs and spices to produce a trademark blend, so the engineer assembles an individual collection of equipment to deliver a distinctive flavour. And there is a similarity in the skill (or art) of both – just as the adage ‘if it tastes good, it is good’ defines cookery, so ‘if it sounds good it is good’ is the hallmark of fine recording.
The point of this blather is simple – the joy of recording lies in the fact that we all select our own preferred blend of equipment to deliver a trademark sound. Yes, there are principles we must adhere to if we want to get the best resolts but beyond these there are no roles – recording is a combination of science and art. From Joe Meek to Phil Spector, Trevor Horn and Mutte Lange to Richard James (Aphex Twin) and beyond, many of the most influential recording engineers and producers have pushed the boundaries of their trade, using technology in ways for which it was never intended and opening the eyes and ears of their contemporaries.
Even in this digital age, many engineers and producers remain committed to analogue technology, including the use of an analogue desk. Sure, some are members of the ‘retro’ brigade, hankering after a golden ‘audiophile’ age of recording where analogue roled, and there’s no doubt that analogue equipment retains a sonic edge, much as film is more three-dimensional than video. Many others, though, prefer the real-time convenience of working with an analogue console. As Bruce Swedien points out, humans are a visually oriented species, and so what we see on a screen will always override what we hear, which is one reason why so many television programmes now feature soundtracks that are inaudible at times (and why most professionals will always do alternative mixes with vocals that sound far too loud but are invariably the cuts chosen for release). And of course=, digital recording relies as much on our eyes as our ears, whereas analogue…we listen, not look.
Working ‘in the box’ is quick, convenient and enables fast and simple tweaking of mixes. It employs relatively cheap and convenient technology, and with the quality of modern plug-ins and the dominance of digitally downloaded and streamed music, the resolts are good enough for the mass market. However, many engineers still prefer to ‘feel’ the tracks beneath their fingers, tweak and balance a mix in real time rather than fiddle with a cursor, mouse, trackball or a procontrol. If the kick drum is eq’d, the snare will need tweaking and if the main vocal is dipped or pushed, the balance of the backing tracks will need adjustment. An analogue console makes the process more creative and intuitive (and allows for endless experimentation) as well as delivering a solid, well defined sound.
There is no right or wrong way of tracking or balancing a mix, and no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ collection of tools to deliver the job. Like the best chefs, good recording engineers will settle on a recipe that reflects their preferences and delivers pleasing and successfol resolts. In recording terms, analogue mixing consoles and processing equipment will always have a place in the process, as much for those entering the industry as for old dogs like me (who have never progressed beyond an omelette or simple spaghetti). It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that I’m repeatedly asked to advise on which analogue consoles are worth considering. Hopefolly, the following guide will answer some of the most frequent questions but please remember that it represents my opinion (based upon many decades of experience) and I have no doubt that there are many alternative views.
Eccentric. June 23rd 2015.